Any fan of grassroots, independent theater would root for Dukesbay Theater’s production of Calligraphy by Velina Hasu Houston. The play’s premise is interesting and fits Dukesbay’s mission “to give a voice to artists of all ethnicities.” Plus, this is a production of a work by a little-known playwright being put on in downtown Tacoma. However, Dukesbay Theater’s production of Calligraphy has only enough enjoyable moments to leave one wondering what exactly went wrong with the rest of the play.
Calligraphy tells the story of a divided Japanese family. Younger sister Noriko married an Afro-Cuban American G.I. and emigrated to the United States. Since her husband’s death, she increasingly needs care from her daughter Hiromi, who struggles with this obligation as well as her mixed cultural and ethnic heritage. In Japan, older sister Natsuko and her headstrong daughter also clash over family and cultural obligations, old and new. It’s a story that spans continents and generations, with aspects sure to be relatable and educational for every member of the audience, regardless of background.
Despite its engaging premise, Calligraphy is uneven on both the page and the stage. The fundamentally interesting story is helped by Houston’s strategic use of flashbacks, but hindered by bad dialogue and confused character motivations. Information is introduced late in the play that completely changes how the audience thinks about where the characters were in their lives at the beginning, destroying the strong parallels between storylines that were Calligraphy’s main strength.
Some of the problems may not stem from the script, but from the quality of the acting and direction. I often found myself questioning whether the dialogue I had just heard was really that bad, or was it just delivered in a way unlike any real human being has ever spoken. At times it seemed that the real culprit here must be the director, because who else could be responsible for a ninety minute play feeling twice as long? Ultimately, the combination of an poorly written script, uneven acting, and ineffective direction must be the reason Calligraphy wastes its potential.
Dukesbay Theater’s production of Calligraphy does have two notable highlights: the theater company itself, and lead actress Eloisa Cardona. Cardona skillfully plays Noriko Jameson as a young and old woman, and her charisma elevates any scene she’s in. Similarly, the atmosphere of the theater elevates its uneven product. Dukesbay Theater is always welcoming, and seems to consistently strive to make unique and worthwhile art. Their Calligraphy is worth seeing to support independent theater in Tacoma, but I unfortunately can’t bring myself to recommend it on any other grounds.
Calligraphy by Velina Hasu Houston. The Dukesbay Theater, 508 6th Avenue, Tacoma, 98402. Oct 27 – Nov 12, Fri – Sat 7:30 p.m., Sun 2 p.m. Tickets: https://dukesbaycalligraphy.brownpapertickets.com/ Info: https://dukesbay.org/shows/